When the pandemic first forced closures and shelter-in-place orders, we didn’t know how long this whole catastrophe would last; we still don’t. But the extra days at home have provided the chance to consider ways to better utilize the spaces where we’ve suddenly been spending so much time.
In the beginning, decluttering became a productive way to cure boredom, or at least get our minds off the latest news; curbs became lined with decades-old junk marked “free.” Retailers jumped on the opportunity for a captive audience, catering their marketing to home-office efficiency. The lines to get into home-improvement stores exceeded those of supermarkets.
Spring became summer and as case numbers bobbed along, vacation plans withered. But gardens sprung up, as more homeowners took to fixing their landscapes and outdoor spaces. The mindset became, “If we can’t fly away on vacation, how can we bring that getaway feeling to our home?” Front porches received a fresh coat of paint and a hanging basket or two, while backyard living rooms became an alfresco extension of the home, featuring hardscaped patios with comfortable seating made for socially distant conversation, plus cozy firepits, sleek wetbars, and more. Water features, like garden ponds, waterfalls, or even large-scale babbling brooks further established the summer oasis setting.
As summer warmth fades and the leaves and air become crisp, there’s no need to forgo your backyard retreat—but there are ways to ensure it stays comfortable and inviting in cooler weather.
“One of the things we try to do when designing and proposing an outdoor living space is keep colder weather in mind,” explains Mark Masseo, owner of Masseo Landscaping, Inc. in New Paltz. “There are options like fire pits and fireplaces, but also some less obvious choices you can make to really extend your patio time into the cooler months, and then get it started earlier in the coming year.”
To start, Masseo suggests ensuring your space is outfitted with outdoor lighting. “With the sun going down earlier, you’re going to need the extra light and a fire feature might not cut it,” he says. “We always recommend something low-voltage with a timer or photocell so it just pops on automatically when it’s time.”
As for keeping your space warm enough for those flannel-weather evenings, heating options abound. A firepit can be enjoyed year-round as either a permanent or portable fixture. “Traditional stone or concrete fire pits are sweet because they create a central gathering point; they’re round with space on every side, so they facilitate conversation while you’re roasting marshmallows and warming your hands on chilly fall nights,” Masseo explains. “With chimineas, or smaller fire pits that come with a stand, the nice thing is that you’ve got a portable heating element—it’s ideal if you use your space dynamically with lots of changing-up.”
For a larger living space or one with elegant ambiance, a hardscaped fireplace can add a dimension of coziness that truly establishes an outdoor room as an extension of the home. “Fireplaces give an outdoor-living setup a formal feel, almost making it like another room in the house,” he says. “There are also so many fantastic precast-concrete products out there now that make a traditional outdoor fireplace more attainable, easier to build, and more flexible for different spaces and styles. What we recommend depends entirely on the space and what the client envisions for that space.”
To ensure heat stays within the space, one option is to add a line of evergreen plantings or thick surrounding shrubbery; it creates a natural barrier that serves as a windbreak and keeps heat somewhat contained. Not to mention, placing ornamental plants in or around the space can help to create a sense of atmosphere and a coziness. For decorative greenery, farm-stand mums in decorative planters are an autumnal classic, but there are many seasonal annuals that are hardy enough for colder weather like ornamental peppers, black-eyed Susans, or millet in fall, and evergreens like spruce, cedar, holly, or boxwood in winter. Keeping them in planters is an easy way to switch your decor to fit changing seasons, but if you intend to plant shrubs or trees, Masseo suggests early fall as the ideal time. “Plan to install those new trees in September; the cooler mornings and nights, the warm sunny days, and the extra precipitation give any new plants a perfect window to get established before winter,” he says.
For those who have opted for a backyard kitchen space, designs can vary from a simple setup with a grill and counterspace, to full-on luxury including plumbing, a gas range, and appliances. While these options are still usable in fall, special care and attention is needed to ensure your appliances are protected and that pipes don’t freeze as temperatures drop. “The only way to keep your outdoor kitchens functional through the winter is to bury your water, electric, and utility lines at least 48 inches below ground, where the frost won’t get to it,” Masseo explains. “Otherwise, it’s just not an option. If you’re only using the space seasonally, just make sure you get the utilities shut off and the water lines pumped clear. We recommend marking your calendars for some time between Halloween and Veterans Day to be safe.” He suggests buying properly fitting covers for grills, burners, sinks, and appliances, and giving them a thorough cleaning before covering for the season.
Although it’s uncertain whether these homebound days will have us yearning for a true getaway next summer, or preferring to stay at our cozier-than-ever homes, either way, the final months of this year are an ideal time to start or expand an outdoor space for use in warmer weather. “If you’re planning a new hardscape project like an outdoor kitchen, late fall is a great time to get started,” Masseo says. “Getting the construction done in November or December means you’ll be ready to go when it warms up next spring.”